Monday, November 03, 2008

'Clever with Clothes'

How could I resist this slim little book with its orange dust jacket? It draws me like a beacon when I find it amongst a ruck of others - the usual dusty fare of the second-hand stall. I'm attracted by the slim and elegant figure sketched on its front; she's pert of breast and trim-waisted, the epitome of poise and chic. This capable gal taps her foot and menacingly points her scissors at the matronly gown on her dressmaker's dummy. This capable gal means business. What lies within 'Clever with Clothes' I wonder. For £1.00 I can find out.

I do not have to look far; the first - and only - colour plate encourages me to make blouses and aprons out of mens' shirts. This is 'a book of renovation ideas.' Aha! It might come in handy in these recessionary times.

I get the picture - it was published in 1946. Hostilities had ended and the country was no longer at war. However, Peace had not yet bestowed the blessings of plenty and Britain still did not flow with milk and honey. The nation must continue to make do and mend. Our plucky women must continue to use their skills and ingenuity to feed and cloth their families. Knitted garments were carefully unravelled to be knitted up again, coats become jackets, stockings were re-footed. Why not make a cardigan and a skirt from a man's suit? Why not make crocheted covers for the linoleum soles of your new (home-made) slippers - or you might use plaited string?
'Slipper making is a very worth-while form of sewing, for you can make these necessary items almost without cost for every member of the family. It is quick too; you can make a slipper in an evening, perhaps even the pair, and you can do the work pleasantly in an armchair, or pick it up at any odd moment.'
Yes, that's as maybe. Underwear and nightgowns apparently are a problem, wearing out as they do. Well, mend them. Unpick and resew the worn seams. Combine the good fabric from two garments to make one new one. 'Build' yourself a brassiere - a veritable over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder - click the image for details. Renew your knickers; let in extra strips of fabric if necessary - shorten your worn out woven directoire knickers into panties to wear under cami-knickers.... I am losing the plot here - pants under pants?Nothing is wasted; not a scrap. It might 'come in' - and it might need to 'come in' until clothing rationing ends in 1949. Until then the likes of 'Clever with Clothes' will firmly and cheerfully guide the sewing kits of the nation.

I think about L P Hartley's now almost proverbial quotation: 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there'. This, our recent past, is within the living memory of a sizeable proportion of the population but so removed are we today in terms of life style and culture we may as well be considering Medieval or Tudor times. We are strangers to frugality, strangers to making do and mending. We want stuff and we want it now. But how much do we actually need?

I flick through the pages of my little book again. Nope, I'm not inspired to remake old clothes otherwise destined for the charity shop or for gardening in - and I do think the place for old underwear is in the bin - but I'm filled with admiration for the women who set to with needle and thread and did just that. In fact any woman who can achieve the covetable embonpoint of the clever seamstress on the cover with the sole aid of a home made bra deserves the highest award.


Wipso said...

Daft as it may seem I now have several customers who are charity shop buying for clothes for me to alter. Maybe you should hand the book on to me when you've read it for a few new tips... but one thing is for wont catch me renewing the crotch to worn out knickers for anyone.

Twiglet said...

Oh dear I must be older than I look!! Our superb needlework teacher at The Priory School for Girls taught me how to make a mini skirt from my mother's old coat - and very snazzy it was too.I am sure Wipso has lots of the afore mentioned skills so, if any body has the urge to transform their husband's old shirts into aprons or crochet a pair of wellies she's your gal! Thanks for the memory - its a brilliant blog.

toady said...

Just love that book. I was born in 52 and clearly remember my Mum deconstructing old clothes and remodelling them down to hooking a rug with a bunny on it out of my brothers' old grey wool socks.

ChrisH said...

What a brilliant find... off now to remake my knickers and a dashing little outfit from Tom's old shirts... but what's he supposed to wear??

Zoƫ said...

What a fabulous little book, my daughter Robyn (Fashion/Journalism student) would devour it!

I shall have to keep my eyes peeled in future, I didn't think such gems existed.

I recall all to well in my own childhood, the hideous handme-downs, and thrift shop finds, often remade into summer dresses for me or my sisters. My brothers seemed to suffer less of this, the age gap( 12 years) and the more difficult tailoring of boys clothes probably working in their favour.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

I'm so glad I wasn't around in the days when women did do just that! I remember when I first moved to the farm any my father in law gave me a few pairs of his old, very old socks. "For the bin," I said without question. "Oh no," said he, "I'd like you to darn them." Suffice to say I threw them in the bin and walked out. If I had reached for the needle and thread he would have let me do them.

CJ xx

KittyB said...

I've grown up with stories of darning socks (and a darning mushroom in the sewing box), turning sheets, turning collars... now we just have Primark.

Frances said...

That book is a gem! It really does tell a lot about social history.

My parents were children of the Great Depression, and my brothers and I grew up with that save, repair, don't buy much philosophy.

I admit to having a bit of it still in my genes. I have been known to darn the ravelling heel of a favorite pair of socks!

I agree that the book does encourage thinking outside the box and would provide lots of ideas for fashion designers. A real jumping off place.


Pam said...

My mum once made me a two-tone skirt( I was a "mod") from an old black school skirt and a white pillow case. We had no money & she was ingenious. Still is. I love that she knits cardies for my son - there's something so wonderful about homemade baby clothes.
Thanks for the post - it really brings it home how fickle we have become.

Cait O'Connor said...

I started off laughing at this book but ended up nodding in agreement with your conclusions.

I am allergic to sewing but M can darn socks!

Pipany said...

What i would give for a book like that and my daughter would also devour it as Zoe's would. Just great xx

LittleBrownDog said...

What a marvellous book! Where did you unearth such a gem? And did women of that era really have such tiny waists and pointy, gravity-defying bosoms, or do you think that was just wishful thinking? (particularly if one was wearing a home-made bra, I should imagine.) Yes, and knitting. I remember one of my mother's knitting books with a pattern for a swimming costume - thank goodness she never attempted it. One can only imagine the result of a hand-knitted swimming pool following a dip in the sea - Ursula Andress, I don't think.

elizabethm said...

My grandmother had those skills in spades! Reline a winter coat? make a peg bag out of an old shirt which had already had its collar and cuffs turned and replaced and turned again and its seams repaired?
As you say, a foreign country! Loved the poem you posted on mine btw. I had forgotten it but it is just right for November.

Woozle1967 said...

My nan made me THE most lovely red coat cut down from one of her own and always made my uncles' shorts for school from grandad's cut-down trousers. Wonderful part of our history. The original recycling!x

Preseli Mags said...

What a brilliant little book! I agree with ChrisH though, I don't think I'd be too popular if Bri found that I'd turned his suit into a cardigan and a skirt! Although, with the heating turned off in these credit crunch chilly times, I'm quite attracted by the idea of two pairs of pants! (It reminds me of my grandmother who was always so proud of her "little" knickers - they only had short legs!)